I don’t mean to keep returning to The Wire in order to interpret Treme, but it’s proven helpful so far. We have five seasons of The Wire, 50 hours of television over six years, to act as a Talmud to the five scant hours of Treme. So let’s use The Wire as our text.
After a few hours on the streets of Baltimore, you’ll see a dozen lives get ground up in the bureaucracy and brutality of the War on Drugs. Wallace, Omar’s boy Brandon, Stinkum, Gant, D’angelo, the Sobotkas, those fiends in the lockup that Avon gave the hot shots to … and that’s just the first two seasons. You might start wondering, “If keeping drugs illegal causes all this strife, why not legalize drugs?” Major Colvin tries just that in Season 3, pushing all the dealers in his district to an abandoned block of houses and telling them he’ll turn a blind eye to anything they sell in there. Anyone who sells outside of “Hamsterdam” gets busted, hard. Anyone who shoots up “Hamsterdam” gets busted harder. Just stay within the lines and sell your shit and everything will be cool.
What’s the result?
In Season 4, a professor from Hopkins gets the idea to take a few kids out of Baltimore’s high schools. He’d work with them in small seminars instead of crowded classes. Through interviews and exercises, he’d get at the root of their anti-social behavior. In time, and with the proper funding, he could hopefully devise a curriculum that would get them out of the generational cycles of crime and poverty.
Fortunately, he ran into Major Colvin, who talked him into picking kids a little younger. Otherwise, every interview would have gone like this:
(Sorry for the laugh track; this is the only version of this clip I could find. Somehow the laughter seems appropriate)
When Mayor Carcetti sweeps into office (Season 4), he has a bold series of inspiring plans. On his first day, he galvanizes the traffic and sanitation departments into action with a series of crafty “constituent complaints.” He tours the police department; disappointed by their malaise, he promises swift changes. Then he learns just how bad the school’s budgets are. He can’t – rather, won’t – go to the governor for help, so he has to rummage through the police budget to make up for it.
And this is a short list. Consider McNulty’s plan to free up some money for the police department in Season 5. Or Stringer’s plan to make the drug business in Baltimore peaceful through a co-op of like-minded businessmen. Nobody’s well-laid plans go very far. Even if they can cut through the red tape of one institution with a lateral move, another institution – the DEA, the Governor’s office, or the simple force of greed – can strangle them with the remainder.
If The Wire had one lesson, it’s that Not Everything You Call “Help” Helps.
Now let’s reconsider the types of help that have been offered in Treme:
Playing for tourists on Bourbon Street. Tourism will pour money into New Orleans and that usually helps. But tourists only pay for certain things: safe restaurants, hotels with modern conveniences and a limited variety of museums. They don’t pay for poor kids to learn music so they can march the second line. And that (as Davis McAlary points out in Episode 5) is where the heart of New Orleans music comes from.
Gutting water-damaged houses. Ripping out the interior of a house is a quick and cheap way to make it livable, especially if you have volunteer labor. But, as Chief Lambreaux points out in Episode 2, not every water-damaged house needs to be gutted. A lot of those old houses, built with solid plaster, have stood through storms for a century. And antebellum architecture is another one of New Orleans unique traits.
And finally, the Katrina Tours. You might defend these as raising awareness of the poverty of the Ninth Ward. But any such awareness will be superficial and short-lived. And awareness without a follow-up plan doesn’t do much good. You can see the blocks and blocks of ravaged homes and say, “Oh, how terrible.” But who would you give money to? The Red Cross? Habitat for Humanity? Levees.org? Where will your money do the most good?
The problems that affect New Orleans in Treme, just like the problems that afflict the Recon Marines in Generation Kill or Baltimore in The Wire, are institutional in nature. New Orleans is a city of quirks, grown up like kudzu and ossified into a culture. Institutions don’t handle quirks well, however; they prefer uniformity. But it’s not because these institutions – FEMA or the Department of Corrections or the big insurance companies – are malicious. An institution is not ten people conspiring to do evil. It’s ten thousand people with no incentive to do good.
And if Simon and Overmyer have tried to teach us anything, it’s that you can’t play within the institution and expect to get different results. Bringing tourists back to New Orleans won’t create an agency that’s accountable for the levees. Playing a few benefit concerts won’t end the generational mistrust between rich and poor. Marching in a second line won’t stop people from shooting each other. Not Everything That You Call “Help” Helps.
So what is to be done? How does New Orleans rebuild?